Simulated Madness

Who could forget the game last December when Douglas Stewart, the low-scoring walk-on from Minneapolis, stepped out from the shadows of his all-conference teammates to lead the Annapolis Fightin’ Crabs to a national championship?

You’re forgiven if you don’t follow the defending champs; they don’t, alas, exist in the realm people persist in calling the “real world,” but rather as data warriors in the complex alternate universe that is College Basketball.

It’s a world that lurches to life every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the stroke of a keyboard, and to the flesh-and-blood coaches who guide the teams, its reality is corroborated by the hours they spend poring over play-by-plays, box scores, individual statistics, and the high school recruits that are the virtual game’s future. Take your pick: SimSports is a community, an extended metaphor, a reason to get up in the morning or stay up late into the night.

The free online game, created in 1999 by SmartAcre LLC, is not a typical fantasy league; instead of using the stats generated by real-world collegiate hoops stars, the coaches playing SimulatedSports basketball recruit and coach randomly named players with computer-generated attributes.

There is no actual on-court action, only static data posted to web pages. Games are viewed as box scores or play-by-play accounts (“D. Watson passes to M. Williams”). Of the dozens of pages detailing team statistics, players’ strengths, league standings, top performers, game strategy, and much more, only a few are interactive. Coaches set pre-game lineups and strategy through drop-down menus, and likewise apply points toward next season’s preferred recruits. Yet out of the numbers leap beloved players, future stars, bitter rivalries, miraculous victories, and another grueling March Madness-style tournament every nine weeks.

It’s a pretty decent and entertaining simulation of real college basketball, but with better team names: Santa Fe Steaming Toads, Jackson Five, Amarillo Needs Women, Olympia Dukakis, Erie Coincidence, Twin Falls Hurt Twice.

My own Boston Stranglers have hovered near the top of their league for a half-dozen seasons now, but have never quite managed to go all the way. That failure certainly can’t be attributed to lack of effort. I spend hours each week checking scores, adjusting lineups, scouting opponents, and browsing the ranks of high school recruits to build my dynasty.

I’ve logged in at work, coached from Palm Pilots and public library computer terminals, from internet cafes in Mexican mountain towns and Garifuna villages in Belize. On my recent three-week honeymoon, I didn’t miss a game. What can I say? Addiction is a high-maintenance mistress.

And I’m not the only junkie. According to Todd Nevin, who runs the game from his Baltimore home, in between his job as a programmer and his kids’ real-life Little League games, of the more than 4,600 teams in eighteen leagues, 4,035 have active human coaches (the computer runs the others). While coaches can buy credits (with small amounts of real money) to enhance their recruiting, that income covers costs but is “not nearly enough to make it my full-time job,” says Nevin.

Coaches hail from as far away as Europe, Australia, and Japan, and include servicemen stationed overseas. “It sure helps to relieve the stress of war,” wrote one (who continued to coach while deployed in Iraq) in response to the questions I posted on the league’s very active message board.

The online responses revealed the strength of the game’s grip on its devotees. One coach admitted spending twenty hours a week on the site; another coaches twenty-four teams at one time. Some use Excel spreadsheets and formulas to track statistics and gain an edge on opponents and recruiting. Computer programmers make their own custom-written game viewers and other software to track every imaginable aspect of each contest.

As addictions go, SimulatedSports is a relatively benign one. Even so, not everyone understands it. “They definitely don’t get it but are happy I don’t do other drugs,” wrote one coach of his loved ones.

Another said he’d used the game as “an escape from a marriage that had gone very wrong … I absolutely immersed myself in [the game] … I knew everything about every team in the league. The game actually helped me in some way get through a very difficult time in my life.”

Others relish the real-life relationships formed through the message boards and, of course, the spirit of competition. Those champion Fightin’ Crabs are coached by a guy I introduced to the game, a Minneapolis IT professional who wouldn’t let me use his name because, he said, “people will make fun of me.” In less than a year and a half, he’s racked up a hundred and twenty-eight wins and forty-nine losses, two Final Four appearances and a league championship. After four years, I’m still waiting to win it all, but I continue to take no small pleasure in beating him.

One local coach, who called the game his “dirty little secret,” recently walked away, discarding his Syracuse Lords A’Leaping (and four other teams) like so many unsmoked cigarettes. He claimed the habit wasn’t hard to kick, but it’s not like he went cold turkey. “I do spend a lot of time on the Xbox 360 now,” he said.